Saturday, June 27, 2015

No Easy Baseball

The Cell, home of the Chicago White Sox
A colleague affixed a postcard on her office door that reads, No Bad Art. I think that the expression "bad art" is a contradiction in terms; art is, by definition, good (or, at least, successful). Bad art is not art, it's something else. On the other side of the rhetorical street, that baseball is a hard game feels like a redundancy, one that becomes graphically apparent when you follow an average-to-poor team. This season's Chicago White Sox are inept offensively and defensively, and as a consequence the generally decent starting pitching is taking virtually nightly scarring. When a team is stuffed with veterans having simultaneous poor years at the plate you can see first-hand just how difficult it is to play baseball well consistently. Though as I write Melky Cabrera, Adam LaRoche, and Adam Eaton are starting to swing the bat well, Jose Abreu and Jose Quintana are playing well, and Chris Sale continues to have a stellar year, it may be too little too late. The season writ small: a high contact rate is good; hitting balls hard but directly at position players is bad; a pitcher getting ahead of a batter in a count is good; falling behind—in the White Sox Way—is bad. There is plenty of luck, good and bad, involved in a winning team. When the White Sox won the World Series in 2005, they'd been in first place from the first game to the last (following an August scare and charge from the Indians). Many players had consistently strong seasons that year, and the team had a plenty of luck go its way. Mostly, baseball is about struggling to play well. Because of that, the game is sometimes dull, but it's never boring. Most major league players struggle to regularly string together several good games in a row over the course of a season, and it's hard for teams to follow suit for very long. Statisticians of the game always encourage the average curious fan to look at a three-year span to gauge a player's value; anyone can get hot for a week, a month, even for a single miraculous season. Baseball rewards its players who play well, and is tough on those players who can't play well consistently. For a fan, a struggling team is a reminder of how the game renews itself: every at-bat is a fresh struggle.

I have no problem watching players struggle; I have a problem having to pay so much for the privilege of watching bad baseball. Sometimes I fantasize about MLB introducing new ticket pricing based on a team's standing in the rankings: a first-place team would charge the highest ticket price; the last-place team the lowest, Think of the incentives! "We suck, but we're cheap!" It seems unlikely, though it's nice in theory.

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I was recently reading Thomas Boswell's terrific How Life Imitates The World Series. His piece on the Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax's early retirement sent me to Roger Angell; I wanted to read Angell's recap of the '66 World Series, Koufax's last. The Dodgers rolled over for the Baltimore Orioles in the Series, losing in four. Angell was at pains to understand—and to describe—the Dodger's glaring failures over the four games. His conclusion: baseball is hard, even for the best players and teams. "The only answer to that question 'What happened?' is that the Dodgers stopped hitting, and the only explanation must be that baseball is still the most difficult, and thus the most unpredictable and interesting, of all professional sports," Angell writes in the aptly-titled "A Terrific Strain," in his first book The Summer Game. "For all its statistics, the game does not yield itself readily to the form player or the expert; only two out of two hundred members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America correctly picked both pennant winners this year. There are so many surprises in baseball and so many precedents for this unexpected Series result that one must conclude that the only reliable precedent in baseball is surprise itself."

Throughout the essay, as if to reward himself for enduring such an unexciting Series, Angell quoted from Lawrence Ritter's classic The Glory Of Their Times, an oral history of the game's earliest eras. Angell warmed himself with the old tales, and concludes "Terrible Strain" with  series of observations from the old-timers in the book:

Heinie Groh, of McGraw’s Giants: “So much of baseball is mental, you know, up there in the old head. You always have to be careful not to let it get you. Do you know that I was scared to death every time I went into a World Series? Every single one, after I’d been in so many. It’s a terrific strain.”

Rube Bressler, of Connie Mack’s early Athletics: “Baseball . . . is not a game of inches, like you hear people say. It’s a game of hundredths of inches. Any time you have a bat only that big around, and a ball that small, traveling at such tremendous rates of speed, an inch is way too large a margin for error.” And “[The Athletics] won four pennants in five years, and three World Championships. . . . The only one they lost was that 1914 one—to George Stallings’ ‘miracle’ Boston Braves, of all teams. The weakest of them all. And we lost it in four straight games, too.”

Sam Jones, of the Yankees, on the 1923 World Series: “Art Nehf and I both pitched shutouts through six innings, but then in the seventh Casey Stengel hit one of my fast balls into the right-field stands. That was the only run of the game, and Nehf beat me, 1-0. Oh, that really hurt‘. ”

Paul Waner, of the Pirates, on losing the 1927 Series to the Yankees in four straight: “Out in right field I was stunned. And that instant, as the run that beat us crossed the plate, it struck me that I’d actually played in a World Series. It’s an odd thing, isn’t it? I didn’t think, ‘It’s all over and we lost.’ What,I thought was, ‘Gee, I’ve just played in a World Series.’ ”

Waner was in his second year with the Pirates in ‘I927, and he batted .333 in that Series. He remained in the big leagues for twenty years more, with a lifetime average of .333, but he never got into another World Series. Baseball is a hard game.

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